Monday, November 19, 2012

The pen is mightier than the developer: the story of Fred Ferber

This weekend's search for winter finches brought us into Passaic County's more wooded spots, particularly the Pequannock watershed. Crossbills and evening grosbeaks look to coniferous trees for food, so the evergreen groves surrounding the Newark reservoir seemed the logical place for us to get a good look. The plan was to stop, look and listen: stop at a given stand of appropriate trees, walk a little along the road and into the forest, look for activity, and listen for the calls of our target species.

Our luck wasn't really holding as we seemed to be hitting our second consecutive weekend of dry birding, but we couldn't complain about the terrain or the scenery. Walking about five feet into a grove of towering pines, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of trees as much as I was by their size. I've been to redwood forests in Northern California, and these weren't the same, yet they were more impressive in their own way. Because they're smaller in girth, I guess, they can grow more densely packed together, leaving the visitor with a feeling of walking among the legs of a crowd of very tall people. We heard little to no bird chatter, only the slight creaking of an older tree whose top was swaying in the breeze above. Underbrush was sparse, but several young Charlie Brown-type pines stood knee or waist high, waiting for their time in the sun.

Still, no birds of note. Maybe the finches just weren't buying what these evergreens had to offer. After several stops, Ivan suggested we could try something a little different. He knew of an area nearby that had once been the estate of Fred Ferber, the inventor of the ballpoint pen. It's unoccupied and overgrown now, but there might be traces of human habitation on the property, which is now part of Wawayanda State Park. Wait: the guy who invented the ballpoint lived in New Jersey? This was a new one on me. We had to check it out.

A few twists and turns brought us past a few houses and up an incline to a small, rustic parking lot. Another path the width of a road was off to one side and blocked to traffic by a gate. Old utility poles ran alongside the broad path for as far as I could see from the lot. That was our route to the site of Ferber's house, Ivan told me, toeing the ground in front of us to show me the remnants of macadam that must have been part of the driveway.

We walked along the path a bit, musing over whether the utility lines were still in service. Then we came upon a point where they'd fallen to the ground, perhaps in the most recent storm. A little farther along, the lines terminated at a final pole – either that or they were buried underground.

Reaching the top of a gentle hill, we found a clearing large enough for a house, but alas, nothing that could be construed as having been part of a dwelling. Ivan saw what looked to be a slab of molded concrete in a ravine below, but on further inspection we determined it was just a large rock.

What else could have been here? We saw a parting in a stand of rhododendrons nearby, so that seemed to be just as good a place as any to explore. What we found was pretty cool: a little bit of marshy area, fed by small streams that were crossed with stepping stones to ease a hiker's passage. Surely someone had put a lot of thought into this layout.

On getting home, I took to the internet to discover more of the story. Ferber emigrated from Austria in 1931, marrying Hedwig, a German immigrant, a few years later. Described by his wife as a dreamer, Ferber bounced from job to job but eventually found success as the inventor of a low-cost ballpoint pen. His Englewood-based Ferber Pen Company earned him a fortune that allowed him to take a run at his ultimate dream: preserving nature in the increasingly urbanizing Northeast corridor.

Buying a large expanse in West Milford, he later gave half his land to the state for the creation of Wawayanda State Park. Stories vary on how Fred and Hedwig ended up running an animal sanctuary, but it seems that they started feeding the wildlife, likely attracting more deer, bears and other creatures to the property than normally would have stopped by on their own.

According to a 1969 article in Life magazine, Ferber created a non-profit organization called Sussex Woodlands, which bought 3000 acres of land near Bearfort Mountain. National Audubon reportedly endorsed his plans for hiking trails and a conservation center, giving further weight to his presentations to universities and foundations he hoped would buy into his vision.

Apparently none did. Two years later, The New York Times reported that Ferber was attempting to sell the property to the state for $1.5 million to cover his back mortgage and property tax payments. Developers had offered him $4 million, but he stood firm on his dream, even when foreclosure and a sheriff’s auction were imminent. The state had insufficient Green Acres funding to purchase the land, but the bank and towns of Vernon and West Milford were reportedly willing to work with the state to ensure the tract’s preservation. However, a later Times article reports that a group of unnamed Bergen County preservationists stepped forward to pay the back taxes when foreclosure appeared unavoidable.

Anyone familiar with land battles, particularly those involving environmentally sensitive areas, can guess that this took quite some time to work out. Eventually the state secured the land, minus 212 acres where the Ferbers continued to live until their deaths in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The most recent development I can find is that a widowed Hedwig was trying to figure out a way to keep their animal sanctuary running after her death.

I’m certain there’s a lot more to the story of Fred Ferber. For one thing, after selling his land to the state, he staked a claim to mine gold and silver on the property, though metallurgists confirmed he’d have to process over 6000 tons of local stone to garner one ounce of gold. Why would an environmentalist want to despoil pristine land with a mining operation? And I haven’t seen anything about the fate of the Ferber house itself. Could it be that we didn’t see signs of it because we were looking in the wrong place? Perhaps it’s still standing and occupied somewhere nearby. You have to love a good mystery.


  1. A couple years back, I purchased an old wooden drafting table/light box from a woman in the Nyack/Haverstraw area (if I remember correctly). She told me the table was owned by Fred Ferber, who had been a good friend of hers. I still have her phone # I believe. Good story! -Neil

  2. Based on the description, that was the place. I grew up on Cherry Ridge Rd as a kid in the 90s. I used to go to the ruins of the Ferber house as a kid to explore. Somewhere around 1998, 1999 someone tore down what was left and filled in the basement.


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